Bishop's 2019 Convention Address

November 22, 2019
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Convention Address 2019
The Rt. Rev. George Wayne Smith
Friday, Nov. 22

I think that the theme of this Convention is about bishops, and more to the point it is about electing a bishop, and to make it local, it is about electing an 11th bishop for Missouri. And I need to begin by recognizing those who have labored long and hard to bring us to this moment. Search and Nomination Committee, chaired by Deborah Nelson-Linck. (Would all committee members stand.) Transition Committee, chaired by Jane Klieve (please stand.)

The Standing Committee, who have appointed these committees and overseen their work. Dawn-Victoria Mitchell is president. And Standing Committee members, please stand. My staff, who have stood in the background but made everything work. The best staff that I have ever had. Please stand. 

And I express my gratitude to Stacey Fussell, Deon Johnson, and George Smith, who have given themselves over to this arduous and very public work of discernment, as we choose the 11th bishop of Missouri.

Wherever in the world Anglicans have gone, we have taken three things with us. Bible, Prayer Book, and bishops. I used to carry a Bible and a Prayer Book with me, everywhere I would go. Paper copies, between covers. I serve on the Church-Wide Task Force for Revising the Book of Common Prayer, and I think that it is fair to say that we will likely update that list to say that Episcopalians take two things with us, wherever we go:  Bishops. And a smartphone.  

I carry the Greek Testament, the Hebrew Bible, about a hundred English translations, and every Prayer Book in the American lineage right here. We will continue to have a standard for Common Prayer in our Church. It might not ever be published between boards again. Such is the state of technology. But the standard will remain.

Remember that a revolutionary technology made possible this thing called Anglicanism in the first place, the moveable-type printing press. And the printing of many Bibles. And Prayer Books. The technology shaped our way of being Christian. I still carry the Bible and the Prayer book with me. Everywhere I go. Thanks to this revolutionary technology. 

The Anglican way of being Christian is first of all radically incarnational.  More so than it is technological. Incarnation provides the lens through which we make sense out of bishops and Bibles and Prayer Books. The Word of God who is none other than God has become flesh—this stuff—and has dwelt among us. That truth endlessly fascinates us. And marks how we believe. Our Anglican way is bookish, yes, intellectual and thoughtful, yes, because of those books and devices we carry with us.

But even more so, we look to what is human, and struggle to be humane, and look toward what is personal, between and among people. We confess belief in a three-personed God. Let me give you an example about how incarnation works itself out in the common life of our Church. 

I have been ordained long enough to remember a time when ordained women were rare and exotic. And it was easy for Episcopalians to oppose the idea of women’s ordination, because women priests were not much to be seen. Some people made more-or-less plausible arguments against ordaining women. While many of us argued in favor of it. 

And then the Church actually began to ordain women. And more women. People started knowing ordained women. The arguments were no longer theoretical, but flesh-and-blood human beings among us.  Whom we loved. And disagreed with. And depended upon for the work of pastor and priest. 

The incarnation matters to us. More than theory alone.

Oh we are about ideas. But we really like them to come to us in the flesh.

Another example. We don’t have an Episcopal Racial Reconciliation day, despite that being a priority in our Church’s life. But we do keep Martin Luther King’s birthday. And the anniversary of his martyrdom. A flesh and blood human being, deeply flawed, spectacular witness. Who showed up once in this place, and preached from that pulpit. People and not just theory, not just ideas. That is our way of being Christian.

Any cleric who has worn clerical garb and walked, unannounced, into a ICU waiting room, has certainly felt the temperature change in the place. Who we are and what we represent in that setting absolutely matters. That’s incarnation at work. Again.

So we don’t shy away from investing our best dreams about the faith in flesh-and-blood people, who invariably disappoint. At our best, whenever we disappoint or are disappointed, we pick up the pieces and give it another go. 

So we give our ordained leaders audacious names. Servant. Prophet. Priest. Teacher. Pastor. Heir to the apostles. 

A Baptist theology teacher of mine once said that the scandal of Anglicanism is that those people (that would be us) actually believe that the Church is the Body of Christ. 

And he was right about scandal, because the Church ultimately disappoints. But we are not going to give up on what we believe is God’s project for us and among us. Who chooses a body, this body, to re-present Christ to the world. With our myriad imperfections, that is a scandal.

So we also don’t just have a theology of an apostolic Church. We put our best dreams about being heirs to the apostles upon people called bishops. We personalize the Church, whenever we pray for our bishops. Don’t get me wrong. Bishops do not have a corner on the Church’s apostolicity. But we are to embody that quality so clearly, that believers might thereby recognize that all the baptized are heirs to the apostles. 

The Western Church customarily has named its bishops after the diocese whom they serve. That’s how personal it gets. It has fallen out of practice. Not in England, not in some other places in our Communion. So closely identified can be bishop and people that a naming me Wayne Missouri is not absurd. 

Imagine whomever we elect to be our bishop as someone who will belong to this place, specifically, irreducibly. We do not elect bishops-in-general but for a specific place, in an exact time, among a people with gifts and limitations that cannot be replicated. 

We are going to elect a bishop for Missouri. Not some generic bishop, to fill in the blank and serve anywhere.

People will mess up, and the bishop will mess up. We are not thereby allowed to give up. But pray for the grace to pick up again, and give it another go. In some quarters of our Church, it has become all the rage to show disappointment and even contempt toward bishops in general. Perhaps it is because we bishops disappoint so often, and there is impatience with giving it another go.

You, dear people of God, have not treated me this way. I have disappointed you. You have disappointed me. But I think that we have had the grace to shake ourselves off, whenever this has happened, and go again. I do not say such a thing for sentimental purposes. But to encourage you to expect the same grace, when it comes to the 11th Bishop of Missouri.

And more: despite a countervailing narrative, the House of Bishops in our Church is in a better place than I have ever seen it. It is a different place than the community that I joined in 2002. Mutual respect is real. Finger-wagging is not the done thing. Morale is high. Laughter is more common than pedantic tones.

This is crucial for me to say: The newest bishops among us are the ones leveraging the greatest change. Expect that from your new bishop. Expect it soon. For the season allows no dilly-dallying. The Church is changing even as I speak.

I have been blessed to be a bishop for Missouri. Not among some theoretical people, but with this people. Who have challenged me and maybe even helped shape me into the person whom God has in mind. Fallible, God-shaped human beings that we are, I have found among you a season of grace. For which I give thanks.

 

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